Of Confucius, Holy Clowns, and Holy Murderers: Some Advantages of China’s Religious Atheism

[This space has  been quiet because I’ve been fact-checking and otherwise researching my Unsucky Gilgamesh chapters so far (which I hope to publish as a book when finished) and, since school started two weeks ago, writing for my students. The below is one such piece for my History of China students. There’s no reason other students — whether in school or out, and regardless of ability to pay the high tuition of the private school I work for — should be excluded from the fun. Call it a Do It Yourself form of Open Courseware. I enjoyed writing it because I enjoy trying to make sense of that deep, rich ocean called Chinese history. So I hope some of you enjoy reading it. Any mistakes are my own, and I’d love to hear your corrections or other pushbacks.]



First, to set the mood: A 2-minute clip from Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters, in which Mickey’s (played by Allen) Jewish parents are freaking out because he has found Jesus Christ and converted to the Catholic faith. It ends with one of my favorite comic lines in film history:

–It’s also a line I think China’s religious sages would find wiser than most of what they hear coming from the West about these questions.

And here we go:

~     ~     ~

Of Confucius, Holy Clowns, and Holy Murderers:
Some Advantages of Chinese Religious Atheism

           MOTHER
  (offscreen in the bathroom)
Of course there's a God, you idiot!
You don't believe in God?

          MICKEY
        (sighing)
But if there's a God, then why is there so much
evil in the world? Just on a simplistic level...
Why were there Nazis?

          MOTHER
  (offscreen in the bathroom)
Tell him, Max.

          FATHER
       (offscreen)
How the hell do I know why there were Nazis?
I don't know how the can opener works.

--Woody Allen
Hannah and Her Sisters

I. Why Today’s Students, Particularly, Should Care

Why should anybody today care about knowing ancient Chinese religion? A few sentences can make the case:

First, anyone who is East Asian — Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese, Thai, Vietnamese — should care because their family life and personality are very likely molded by the ideas that arise in the Warring States Period.

There’s a 2,500-year-old reason East Asian airports are safe.

Even people who are not East Asian have good reason to learn it: it’s no secret that the 21st Century is shaping up to be the Century of China (and, yes, India), so odds are that anybody with a future will cross paths with East Asia either socially, romantically, or professionally. So they should know what a different world they’re entering when they do, and thus be able to navigate that world with better success, be it at the business dinner or the girl-friend’s parent’s dinner.

A third reason, of course, is that it’s simply good mental traveling to learn about all this.

II. Confucianism

ConfuciusPoint blank: when we talk about East Asia, we’re talking about Confucius, the man most religious studies scholars agree is by far the most influential “religious” figure and moral philosopher of all time — more than Moses, Jesus, Buddha, or Mohammed. One in four people on the planet today is Chinese; from the beginning of history to today, China’s population has always been larger than that of Europe, Central Asia, Africa, and the Americas. And China’s  people — plus, later, those of Korea, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, and Singapore — have lived the core Confucian values since 200 years before Jesus until today. (And they live them seven days a week, not just on the Sabbath.)

Even Christianized Asians live Confucian lives as their daily norm: family values, respect for elders and authorities, humility and a distaste for vulgarity and boasting, a gentle distaste for conflict, the importance of “face” and, glaringly obvious at SAS, of education — all of those things go back to Confucius.

So understanding Confucius is understanding most of East Asia today — from family life to social attitudes to manners and etiquette and sexual norms. (And to understand Confucius, the Shujing we read from last week will take you a long way.)

Second, Confucius is not a teacher about religion and life after death; on the contrary, his focus is the good life on earth, and how to live it wisely, happily, and graciously. When asked about who made the universe, where we go after we die, and the other Ten Thousand Unknowable Things, Confucius said:

To know when you know something, and to know when you don’t know something: that is wisdom.

He knew humans don’t know about the Unknowable, so he advised it best to pay attention to ritual and ceremony, yes, but to keep a clean distance from questions that can’t be answered — and from people who claim they know the answers. He thought those people dangerous to social order, and their superstitious claims dangerous to individual intelligence.

The Analects, the major collection of Confucius’ alleged sayings as recorded by his students, is a refreshingly easy book to read. Nothing in it is hard to believe except that its common sense and rationalism, which arrived in the West only during the Renaissance, Scientific Revolution, and Enlightenment a short 500 years ago, rose in China a very long two thousand, five hundred years ago.

III. A Holy Clown: Zhuangzi and the Tao

Zhuangzi

Zhuangzi dreaming he's a butterfly dreaming he's Zhuangzi dreaming...

And while Confucius does have a sense of humor in places, it’s one that at most makes you smile a little as you read. Like practically every other religion or philosophy, laughter and a sense of humor seem somehow against the rules. Confucius is serious this way too. But his “opponents,” the Daoists? They give us laughs by the belly-full, while all the while discussing the same subjects the more sober religions talk about. Reading the great Zhuangzi, Daoism’s second great sage, is like reading Jesus doing stand-up comedy. You can’t help but love the guy. He’s a hoot, and he’s also as deep as they come (in my book, anybody who insists there’s nothing unholy about laughter, that it’s every bit as sacred as all the more depressing emotions we usually find glooming up houses of worship, is wise by definition. Why shouldn’t laughter and play count among the holy things? What’s more heavenly than that?).

Zhuangzi had no patience for the Confucians. He was an individualist and an escapist, believing the wisest reaction to suffering is not to try to “fix the problem,” but instead to flow with it, “like water — seeking the path of least resistance.” You can’t fix human society any more than you can fix an earthquake or a drought. You fix your own mind’s way of reacting to things, stop freaking out when life is hard, slow down and enjoy it, and don’t get caught up chasing gold and honors. It’s all a fool’s errand to him. He prefers to go fishing and tell good, deep, playful stories. Your favorite weird uncle. (And one of my five favorite human beings in history.)

IV. A Tangent: Connections to Greece

These might help, if you remember the basics about Greece from other classes:

Greek and Chinese philosophy share a sort of “philosophical relay race” pattern: Socrates taught Plato, and Plato taught Aristotle. In China, Confucianism has a similar threesome: Confucius, Mencius, and Xunzi.

Socrates, like Confucius, never wrote his philosophy down. We know Socrates through the writings of Plato, yet Plato took Socrates’ ideas into areas Socrates may not have agreed with. Similarly, Mencius studied under Confucius’ grandson, so there’s a Socrates-Plato/Confucius-Mencius pattern there.

Aristotle studied under Plato, but ended up arguing against his master. Xunzi similarly argues against Mencius concerning, above all, human nature. As Ebrey explains, Mencius thought human nature was essentially good, but a bad environment can corrupt it (thus the importance of a model king). Xunzi says this is naive, that human nature is prone to stupidity and vice, and thus needs education. (Not the kind of education in today’s world, which more and more seems to teach that education is simply a means for getting a job and making a lot of money, which is what success means. Confucians taught that the pleasures of an educated life are themselves the wealth, and the success. The gold is in the mind, not the bank.)

Xunzi is also interesting as the first flat-out atheist in Chinese philosophy. Confucius was not, mind you, an atheist. He said “We can’t know about God, Gods, and before and after life.” That’s an agnostic position: “a-” means “not,” and “gnostic” means “knowledge” — so Confucius is agnostic. Xunzi is different. He says, flat out, no gods are out there, as plain as an atheist can put it. But he continues with a totally interesting argument: “Even though all of this religious belief is superstitious nonsense, we should continue and support it.” Why? Because first, rituals are beautiful. They add pleasing colors to our days. And second, they’re useful. People need an outlet for fears of death and frustrations with life, so let them pray away, even though it’s totally pointless. You AP Lit people might think of Aristotle’s argument that Greek Tragedy was healthy because it was “cathartic” — it let people drain out all of their fear and horror at the dark sides of life. Xunzi seems to think religion is a similarly useful form of “mental hygiene.”

And then there’s Laozi, Daoism’s “Old Master.” Laozi wrote the Dao de Jing (“The Classic of the Way”), and it’s so deep, mysterious, and paradoxical that I pretty much refuse to even try to teach it to high schoolers. Deer in headlights gazes is all I’ve seen each time I’ve had students read it. So taste it if you’re curious, but we won’t focus on it in class much, if at all. We’ll focus on Zhuangzi instead.

V. Holy Murderers

There’s one final “So what?”, and I’ll close with it: it’s tantalizing to wonder what Jesus and Mohammed would have thought about Confucius. I picture them totally approving of his morality: he argues, like they do, that greed and the fever for gold are vulgar and the “root of all evil.” He also argues that we should love our neighbors and treat everyone well. Confucius, too, would approve of the moral teachings of Jesus and Mohammed — at least their social ones. But Confucius probably would have drawn the line at believing their claims to “know” about beginnings and endings, heavens and hells, spirits and demons. One can only imagine how interesting their conversations would be if they had the chance to debate these things. And while that’s impossible, of course, somehow it still points to something I notice every time I pass through airports in the Middle East, the West, and in China: pretty much everywhere but China, soldiers patrol airports looking for suicide bombers — and they obviously do it for good reason. Muslims, Jews, and Christians have been fighting for thousands of years because of their conflicting knowledge-claims based on their ancient religious texts.

But traveling through Confucian airports, you simply don’t see these soldiers, and you don’t see the terror threats (nor do you see doctors who provide abortions being murdered by Those Who Know When the Soul Enters the Embryo, or political priorities in an age of global warming, economic chaos, and several other urgent problems, being dominated by strange issues like gay marriage by  Those Who Know that Homosexuality is an Abomination. Chinese newspapers and TV don’t argue about whether their president is a secret Muslim, either. On and on.)

Confucian countries are free of all of these strange things because in their culture, they know, thanks to Confucius, that they are Those Who Cannot Know Some Answers and, knowing they can’t know these things, they have no such Knowledge to Kill For. In their airports, instead of soldiers patrolling for Those Who Do, you more often see just a bunch of families, parents leading the kids, the kids leading their suitcases stuffed with textbooks, cramming that education day and night to please their parents — people who don’t know what any Creator of the Universe thinks, but who do know this: family is important, and education is important.

And it’s all because of a guy who read the Shujing during the Warring States Period 500 years before Jesus, thought it was wise, taught it to students, and left teachings that, 2,500 years later, have worked for more than half of the world.

4 thoughts on “Of Confucius, Holy Clowns, and Holy Murderers: Some Advantages of China’s Religious Atheism”

  1. Thanks for the post. It was very interesting. I think teachers like Jesus and Confucious taught a lot of the same things and none of them meant for these huge religions to come about. They just wanted to show us all how to love each other unconditionally and to just relax and enjoy life.

  2. I think you might have romanticized confucianism a little. But nevertheless the point is well-taken. Having 3 monotheistic, exclusivist religions all claiming to have access the sole and only truth gets you those blood religious wars. 
    Mind you, confucianism was once thought to be the reason for China’s backwardness, and now many academics are arguing the opposites–e.g. http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/pellissier20110829

    History certainly is constantly being re-written, and we might as well admit that history is a scroll of tragicomedies. 

    China’s airports might one day too feature those detested TSA, and soldier patrol guards,  were Muslim extremists ever to find the plight of Xinjiang brethrens worth of attention. East Asia, with such a high concentration of population, would no doubt witness the bloodiest events as it had in 19th, 20th century. 

See more? Say more...